23 June 2012

How Yoga Improved My Running

At the second half of my yoga teacher training, I decided to continue running at the fitness center's treadmill in preparation for the 10K I am doing in September. I didn't have a lot of time in between classes, but I managed to squeeze in 30-45 minutes every other day (as I do when I'm home).

I didn't expect all the yoga teachings to translate so profoundly into my running, improving it tremendously. The dramatic effects have continued now that I'm home, so I thought I would share them with you. I hope this post ties together yoga and running for my fellow yogis in interesting new ways, and encourages some of my non-yogi readers to learn more about how yoga can help improve your runs!

Before the Run
Here's what I recommend one do before a morning run, based on how I start each morning.
  • Neti pot--clears the nasal passages, enabling easier breathing. As an aside, I believe netti is responsible for me being allergy free for over a year now, and no, I don't heed any advice about the brain eating amoebas.
  • Warm or lukewarm water with lemon--hydrates the body on waking, and add all the health benefits of lemons.
  • Yoga (asana) practice--15-30 minutes lubricates all the major joints, works out any stiffness from sleeping, elongates the spine and stretches the muscles. It also encourages deep breathing. If instead of following a DVD I do my own flow, I get more in tune with my body's wisdom, which is helpful during the run (see below).
  • Meditation--just 10-15 minutes fills the body with fresh oxygen as it clears away built up carbon dioxide, strengthens the lungs and diaphragm, and focuses the mind. For meditation, I mostly focus on the three-part yogic (dirgha) breath--belly, rib cage, and chest. 
  • Small snack (if needed)--prevents the body and mind from being distracted by hunger. I'll sometimes eat a handful of mixed nuts or 1/2 a BudiBar to tide me over until breakfast, especially if I went to bed feeling hungry the night before.
  • Elimination--emptying the system (both ways) prevents the body and mind from being distracted while running by a need for relief!
During the Run 
OK, so here's where it gets more interesting. First, several koshas, or levels of being, are recognizable when one is running:
  • Physical body (annomaya kosha): a focus on good posture / alignment. Some things I think about during my run include: am I rolling through my feet properly? Are my knees locked? Is my tailbone tucked and my belly drawn in to elongate my spine? Are my shoulders relaxed and moving down my back? Is my face and jaw relaxed? Are my arms swinging out to the sides (instead of crossing my chest) to enable deep breathing? I've found that moving from the ground up (as a yoga instructor would do to cue a posture) is helpful in maintaining good running form.
  • Breath body (pranamaya kosha): a focus (obviously) on breathing. Back in February I learned the many benefits of comfortably breathing through the nose even during a run. I never thought I could do this, but it's related to "the edge" (see below)--in other words, if I'm gasping for air through the mouth, I know I've probably gone past mine!
  • Witness consciousness (vijnanamaya kosha): asking the questions above while running means that part of the Self is aware enough to do this. Noticing when either the body or the breath is lacking "good form" and re-establishing it with compassion and without judgment, is key. In my experience, this protects the body and makes the run steady (stira) and sweet / easy (sukha).
So what about that pesky mind and all its thoughts and feelings (manomaya kosha)!? Many people, including myself, have probably spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to distract the mind during a run. Or, maybe that's when some feel they do their best thinking. Either way, I've come to the conclusion that taking the mind away from the run is not a good thing, because I'm not paying attention to my body or my breath--and these can tell me a lot about whether I'm helping or hurting myself.

Here are some yogic concepts I've found helpful in dealing with the mind during a run:
  • Sense withdrawal (pratyahara): quite the opposite of distracting the mind through the sense is the idea of focusing on the body and breath during the run itself. When running at the gym, I used to: watch TV (both the images and reading the closed captions), people watch, listen to music, and sometimes read a magazine. I also used to look down at the display several times, which caused my mind to calculate the minutes left or set goals around the calories I should burn. In retrospect, none of this ever made me feel better, and sometimes it even made me feel worse. These days, I listen to Krisha Das (unlikely running music for sure!), cover the treadmill display with my towel, and gaze straight ahead at a single, non-moving point (drishti). When I run outside, this turns to gazing at the horizon as much as possible.
  • Micro-movements: if one is completely focused on the body and breath while running and there are no distractions, then what is one to do when discomfort arises? Well, here's an example: the other day I noticed my left knee started to hurt, so I asked myself: "what small adjustment (micro-movement) could I make to relieve this pain?" Then I listened to my body for its wisdom and trusted it would know what to do. Within a minute, I internally rotated my thighs, and the pain stopped. Interesting, no?
  • BRFWA: Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, & Allow is another technique for dealing with discomfort. Here's an example from my experience: it never fails that in minutes 3-5 of any run, I get really hot, and start sweating, and it's really uncomfortable. It used to make my mind think: "I can't really run, who am I kidding?" and "Maybe I should stop and walk." Now, I just notice it. I view it as an expression of my life force (prana) building with the movement of my body and with my breathing. I relax into it and it quickly melts away.
  • The edge: compassionate self-awareness compels one to generate sensation, yet understand and respect one's limits. For me, this involved learning to breathe through my nose--I initially had to take my run way down, back to a walk (and be OK with that!) before building back up to a jog. Noow I do about 5.5-5.7 on a treadmill comfortably. It took a lot for me to accept that as my speed, but I'm consistently running 4-5 miles at a time, and finishing my runs feeling eerily calm and content
  • Loving-kindless (metta): when running with other people on treadmills at the gym or during a race, I've found that the pace of others can be helpful or hurtful. I've started thinking of others as my running community (sangha), which consists of people who want happiness just like me. So, when I lose my drishti and notice someone running faster, or if someone passes me, I send them loving and kind thoughts. The same goes for someone ahead of me whose clearly struggling and slows down. And I send it to myself as well, any time I feel like a kosha other than witness consciousness has taken me over!

Please consider choosing one of these techniques and trying it out. It's done wonders for my running, and I'd love to know how it affects you!


  1. Oh hey - I didn't realize this was your blog!! Really well written and I love how you have tightly intergated yogi practice into running technique - its not just about injury prevention! Breathing through the nose is hard!! Gotta give that a shot - my biggest challenge for sure will be to slow down enough to make that transition:)

  2. I love the idea of sending lovingkindness to those really fast people (like Ruth!). And I also think it will be really nice when I pass someone else (this doesn't happen too often) to send those kind of thoughts instead of the video-game-esque "another one bites the dust" stuff I usually think.